Human factors: Preventing violations

In this Briefing Note I introduce a type of human failure, violations, and outline some strategies to prevent them.

Violations can be defined as deviations from the rules, procedures, instructions and regulations drawn up for safe or efficient operation. They can be accidental, unintentional or deliberate. This post is concerned with identifying and reducing deliberate breaches of rules and procedures. Violations occur for many reasons and are seldom wilful acts of sabotage or vandalism. Most stem from a genuine desire to perform work satisfactorily given the constraints and expectations that exist.

Violations of procedures (sometimes called non-compliances or circumventions) are a significant cause of workplace accidents. Some recent disasters have highlighted the degree to which violations can become the normal way of working (see my Normalisation of Deviance post). Violations also occur frequently in our daily lives outside the workplace (such as speeding when driving, or failing to observe ‘no parking’ notices).

Violations are highly susceptible to management influence, as most underlying causes of violations are either created by management, accepted by management or condoned as normal working practice. 

Preventing violations (pdf version available)

Often, staff believe that management put pressure on them to perform jobs more quickly – this belief being based, in part, on the evidence of management apparently turning a blind eye to any improvised methods or short cuts. This could have been because management did not notice such improvisation, or management pressures may be real, rather than perceived.

There is a general tendency for violations to become routine, because most violations involve less time and effort.

As a result, in many workplaces, violations have become the normal methods of working, rather than the agreed procedures. Not surprisingly, these breaches in rules often lead to incidents.

Accident investigations often concentrate on technical issues and on the identification of blame. Recommendations to provide more training, take disciplinary action or telling individuals to ‘take more care’ are largely ineffective at reducing violations.

“do not simply blame individuals whilst ignoring more fundamental organisational causes. Human error does not take place in a vacuum. Key to any accident investigation is understanding why they acted as they did and the organisational factors that shaped their approach and behaviour” (The Nimrod Review, 2009, p.461).

To deal effectively with violations it is essential to know why the violation occurred.

The solutions for reducing and preventing violations are improvements to design, supervision, management, culture and organisation. The exact type of solution chosen will depend on the specific contributory factors identified. Some actions should be directed at the workforce, while others need to be directed at management or the organisation.

Organisations don’t need to wait until there is an accident involving a violation before they act. A better, proactive approach would be to conduct an audit of potential violations and understand the factors that may increase violations by involving staff in this process.

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